The Garret Tree
Friday, August 21, 2009
  Major Ontario storm kills the original Garret Tree
Garret Tree Dec. 2005
The tree that inspired this blog, The Garret Tree, was brought down by the fierce line of storms that crossed southern Ontario on August 20, 2009. The same storm brought two [update five at last report] tornadoes, killed an eleven-year-old boy, injured a number of others and damaged or destroyed homes and businesses across the province.

CBC News story: Ontario storm devastates communities

As the storm struck across the province, I stayed at work at CBC, watching for news pictures and user photographs and monitoring Tweets of the storm from the public and competing media. So I did not get home until well after dark.

This morning a CBC colleague who had just moved in across the street mentioned in a Facebook status update that a neighbor's tree had crashed into his backyard during the storm. He told me how the tree trunk had come down across his yard and into the neighbor's on the other side.

It was a busy day at work for post storm coverage so it wasn't until I was on the way home that I wondered if it was the Garret Tree. There are/were two large trees across the street from my garret. And when I got home and looked out the attic window, unfortunately I discovered that the Garret Tree was a victim of the storm.

The empty sky where the Garret Tree once stood.

The Garrett Tree in a January, 2005 snowstorm.

The Garret Tree in full leaf, June 2005.

The Garret Tree in November, 2005.

(By the way, there was no other damage in the immediate neighborhood.)

I am currently redesigning this site. So with the death of the original Garret Tree, this will be the last entry in this blog. I will have new blog once the site is relaunched sometime this fall. Farewell leafy friend.

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Monday, May 18, 2009
  Photoblog Don Valley Brick Works
Photo blog for May 18, 2009.

Red winged blackbird at the Don Valley Brick Works.

Red winged blackbird at Don Valley Brick Works May 18, 2009

More photos from the Brick Works hike in my public Facebook album.

All images are copyright Robin Rowland 2009. Do not download or reuse without permission.

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  What "breaking news" means in May 2009

Around 8:30 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, May 17, 2009, an earthquake with a prelminary estimated magnitude of 5.0 struck near Los Angeles International Airport LAX. As this is written an hour later, at 0025 hours May 18 Eastern Daylight Time, the Los Angeles Fire Department reports no major structural damage or injuries.

Here is a lesson for all those news executives in our dying industry who insist on screaming about hours-old "breaking news."

This is a screengrab from Tweetdeck taken at 0017 hours EDT which shows Twitter trending topics, as measured by Tweetdeck. (Twitter's own trending topics are a little different, I've found but in this case the earthuquake is still a top topic). The top topic, of course, is the earthquake, aftershocks, and the Los Angeles neighborhoods where it the quake was felt.

Even the Los Angeles Times in its coverage is quoting the LA Fire Departments Twitter feed.

Updated at 9:10 p.m.: An initial assessment by the Los Angles Fire Department found "no major structural damage, no serious injuries," according to spokesman Brian Humphrey's Twitter feed.

In May 2009, news breaks on Twitter.

If you've got a red "breaking news" banner on your screen or web page even an hour later, rather than "developing story" you're crying wolf and further eroding the credibility of our already stricken profession.

More and more people on the cutting edge of online journalism and high tech coverage are calling for a return to quality (although no one is sure how to pay for it right now). "Citizen journalism" is no longer someone ranting on the comments section of any news site. It is hundreds of those citizens' tweets.

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Friday, April 24, 2009
  The Japanese waterboarding debate widens
The debate over Japanese waterboarding is growing.

Paul Begla, in the Huffington Post, writes Yes National Review, We did execute the Japanese for waterboarding.

Begala is responding to an assertion by Mark Hemingway of National Review Online that U.S. did not execute the Japanese.

The problem with that debate is that it is apparently based on only one case, that of Yukio Asano, and that debate is based only on the online summary of the trial. Apparently it's too much in this internet age to have a debate on the substance of a matter of national and international importance based on the facts or substantive research, just what you pick up on the web. (And these are older adults, so why are we boomers complaining about kids basing their school work on Wikipedia? We have here role models for Wiki-searching from both sides of the polarized American political spectrum.)

There is the usual American parochialism, that it only counts, apparently, if an American was waterboarded or if the Americans executed war criminals for waterboarding. To many Americans, and almost all American conservatives, not only on the Huffington Post or the National Review Online, but on other blogs, that the British tried the Japanese for waterboarding is of little or no importance.
That's why it's called International Humanitarian Law (A lot of the evidence against the Japanese for torture in the Double Tenth case, which was a British military tribunal, came from American war crimes investigators.)

Finally there's a double anonymous comment on the Huffington Post in response to Begala. From an anonymous poster calling himself The Golden Master, quoting an equally anonymous so-called close assosicate who apparently says:

In the first place, I had studied, written, and; 'published' on the Tokyo War Crimes Trial, but I've never come across information that the Japanese waterboarded their captives, even less that Japanese war criminals were executed for waterboarding. So, Paul Begala has no credibility unless he produces his source(s) for that assertion.

Obviously whomever this person is has never actually checked the index to the published edition of the transcript of the hearing of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Far East, for the "water treatment" is easy to find.

I quoted from the trial in my original post

This form of torture was not limited to Singapore. The judgment of the Tokyo war crimes trial said “the water treatment was commonly applied…there is evidence that this torture was used in the following places: (spelling in the original)

China, at Shanghai, Peiping and Nanking
French IndoChina, at Hanoi and Saigon
Malaya, a Singapore
Burma, at Kyaikto
Thailand, at Chumporn
Andaman Islands, at Port Blair
Borneo, at Jesselton
Sumatra, at Madan, Tadjong Keareng and Palembang
Java, at Batavia, Badung, Soerabaja and Buitonzorg
Celebes, at Makeskar
Portuguese Timor, at Orzu and Dilli
Philippines, at Manila, Nichols Field, Palo Beach and Dumquete
Formosa, at Camp Haito
Japan, at Tokyo"

The online debate was triggered by this "discussion" on CNN's Anderson Cooper.

There is also Andrew Sullivan's response to Hemingway here and to Begala here.


There's a good summary (and much more intelligent debate) on Mahalo Answers.

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009
  Times of London blogs A River Kwai Story
The Times of London, Times Online Archive blog features A River Kwai Story on April 21, 2009.

Titled Waterboarding was a war crime in WW2. What's changed? it builds on former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's contention that waterboarding was an effective way of getting information.

It links to my 2005 blog, Waterboarding is a war crime as well as stories in the Times about POW Eric Lomax and a letter to the Times from General Sir Arthur Percival marking the death in a plane crash of Cyril Wild. (Note to read letter you must accept popups from Times Online)

See also a second link from the Times on "humane" torture by the French in Algeria.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009
  Amazon situation updates
A few updates on the Amazon post.

My CBC colleague John Bowman posted a wrap up the Amazon situation in his Blogwatch column for April 14.

Although reports make it clear that Amazon e-mailed a news release to media that requested it, there is still no news release on the Amazon news release page, where the public would go to find it. So Amazon is still making mistakes.

One of the links that John points to in Blogwatch is a report from the Seattle Post Intelligencer, which was on the only media outlet on top of the story from the beginning (and, of course, is Amazon's hometown online newspaper)

In AmazonFail, An Inside Story,
"news gatherer" Andrea James (aren't there reporters any more?) recounts what happened as her sources at Amazon related.

Amazon is apparently still going with the spin that:

Amazon managers found that an employee who happened to work in France had filled out a field incorrectly and more than 50,000 items got flipped over to be flagged as "adult," the source said. (Technically, the flag for adult content was flipped from 'false' to 'true.')

I've worked with computers, programmers, IT folks good, bad and indifferent (often indifferent) for a quarter century, so I do believe it when Andrea James quotes her source as saying:

The source wanted it known that mistakes do happen at -- they're all human.

"Most everyone at one point who works with catalog systems has broken some piece of the catalog," the source said.

Not all the comments on the Seattle PI site are buying that problem. And there's one big problem not mentioned by James her item. The customer service response to the original query by Mark Probst

In consideration of our entire customer base, we exclude "adult" material from appearing in some searches and best seller lists. Since these lists are generated using sales ranks, adult materials must also be excluded from that feature.

Ashlyn D
Member Services

In his two latest Live Journal entries, the first written later on April 12 and on April 13, Probst has shown a great spirit of forgiveness:

So my guess is, yes Amazon has a policy in place not to display the sales rankings of adult material, but no, they never intended for gay and lesbian material, per se, to be classified as “adult.” It’s a major faux-pas which I’m sure they mean to correct.

As a person who has struggled with the issue of forgiving all my life (see my work on the River Kwai) I am not yet prepared to give Amazon the complete benefit of doubt in a murky situation. I've always liked Ronald Reagan's statement that you have to "Trust but verify."

I have inside knowledge from my own sources of how customer service works at big organizations. My source is not at Amazon but I think it applies in this case.
Most tech support and customer service support operations now have a large database of canned answers which can be called up on to handle 85 per cent of all queries. (The other 15 per cent are escalated for detailed handling but the rep has to beware that if he/she escalates without a good reason, they are in big trouble)

When you call one of the major telecom companies for technical support you are not speaking to a techie (as you would have done in the 1990s) you are speaking to an actor who is "between engagements," since that telecom company hires actors who can read the database scripts and can sound authoritative even if they don't know the difference between Linux and laundry.

So it is that canned response to Mark Probst that makes me suspicious. It's my belief that the situation at Amazon was a cluster fark but it was a cluster fark based on a real Amazon policy on classifying books as "adult," whether warranted or not, that through a series of human and computer errors did get out of hand.

So that Amazon policy on "adult" content is still a danger to the freedom to read.

Amazon should post the criterion it uses for determining whether or not a work is "adult."

And let's just hope some kid doesn't get a call from an Amazon computer asking, "Do you want to play a game?"


Excellent article from the Washington Post from a tech expert on the assumptions that likely went into the algorithms Amazon uses to rank all books (not just the ones in the recent controversy)

See Why Amazon didn't just have a glitch by Mary Holder

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Monday, April 13, 2009
  The Amazon Cluster Fark : The Return of the Jedi-Author
As I write this, Amazon has not yet explained what it calls the “glitch” that saw books with gay, lesbian, feminist and similar content delisted from best sellers and sales ranking over the Easter weekend (April 13, 2009).

The Associated Press is now reporting that
“ apologized Monday for an 'embarrassing and ham-fisted cataloging error' that led to the sales ranking being removed from tens of thousands of books.....On Monday, Amazon spokesman Andrew Herdener said that 57,310 books had been affected.

The Los Angeles Times is reporting that some of the rankings are being restored at this moment.

Amazon is still being stupid and ham fisted but let's go beyond the events of the day.
There is a very important lesson for Amazon from the events of this weekend. It's not just the usual public relations post mortem (even though this has been a PR disaster for Amazon. Why hasn't Amazon fixed things overnight ).

As Humans at Work says

Amazon has handled this communications crisis in the worst possible way, which is to ignore the outrage and throw corporate-speak at the issue. I was aware of the controversy early Sunday morning: there was no response from Amazon until late afternoon, and the company spoke through a press release to the Associated Press. Amazon is an online business, suffering an online publicity massacre, and they offered no online response of substance. No blog post of their own. No direct dialogue attempts on Twitter. Imagine that you’re on an arena stage in front of tens of thousands of angry people, and instead of speaking into the microphone, you get on your cell phone and call someone to take a memo to send those folks. That’s essentially how Amazon handled it.

So no wonder all authors were so outraged by Amazon's screw up. High Amazon ranking, being on the Amazon best seller lists mean sales. If Amazon could do it to the gay and lesbian community ( intentionally to please conservatives or through a series of mistake) it could do it anyone else (bird books maybe?)

If Amazon is smart and goes beyond the computer glitch strategy (and so far they have been just plain stupid), the company will realize that the authors, whose products they sell, are either the company's best friends and worst enemies. Although the Tweet hurricane, the Facebook tornado, may have begun with gay and lesbian writers, what happened at Amazon was an immediate threat to all authors and a huge number (Neil Gaimon, for example) reacted.

The calls to boycott Amazon are a big problem, a very big problem. Authors need Amazon. A boycott won't do any single author any good at all. Amazon promotes books that the chain bookstores won't touch.

Those calling for a boycott should think about this. How many of those gay and lesbian books that Amazon deranked are found in your local big box bookstore? A handful, and probably none published over three months ago.

If Amazon wants a long term fix to the business and public relations disaster, they must immediately create a respectful relationships with the authors that create those products.

The Cluster Fark glitch (or hack)

It appears that the “glitch” is some sort of meta data malfunction. It's easy to blame it on computers, (but of course the famous wardrobe malfunction at the Super Bowl was a case of humans doing their thing).

There are two theories:
  1. that some form of homophobic hacking manipulated Amazon's meta data.
  2. a series of perhaps unrelated management decisions created an unintended consequence.

The Making Light blog calls what happened a Cluster Fark where a series of management decisions led to this public relations disaster:

(1)Sometime in the middle-distance past—maybe a couple of months ago, maybe a year, it doesn’t matter—somebody decided that it would be a good idea to make sure that works of straight-out pornography (or, for that matter, sex toys) didn’t inadvertently show up as the top result for innocuous search queries. (The many ways that this could happen are left as an exercise for Making Light’s commentariat.) A policy was promulgated that “adult” items would be removed from the sales rankings and thus rendered invisible to general search.

(2)Sometime more recently, an entirely different group of people were given the task of deciding what things for sale on Amazon should be tagged “adult,” but in the journey from one department to another, and from one level of the hierarchy to another, the directive mutated from “let’s discreetly unrank the really raunchy stuff” to “we’d better be careful to put an ‘adult’ tag on anything that could imaginably offend anyone.” Indeed, as Teresa pointed out, it’s entirely possible that someone used a canned list of “adult” titles supplied from outside, something analogous to the lists of URLs sold by “net nanny” outfits, which would account for the newly-unranked status of works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover. (As one net commenter observed, “What is this, 1928?

(Aside: The Amazon disaster happened the same night that the Discovery Channel Canada premiered Who Sank the Titanic? with the theory that the deadly cluster fark was a series of management blunders, beginning with the substandard rivets and reducing the lifeboats from 48 to 16).

#amazonfail – Twitter comes alive on a holiday weekend: A lesson for the media.

The groundswell of rage against Amazon showed the power of the social media and the absolute failure of the bean counters in the mainstream media (as one who works for the MSM, I am sad to say)

The media managers assume that, in most cases, news doesn't happen on a holiday weekend, when they have to pay overtime.

Most media workers these days are so over worked they crave the time to relax, by themselves or with families or friends on a holiday weekend.

Newspapers, starving to death, still don't “get it” that today news has be posted NOW. It can't wait for 24 or 36 hours until the presses roll.

As history now shows (even though the history is only 48 hours old), blogger and author Mark Probst found that his young adult books about the old American west, which have gay characters, had been deranked.

From Probst's blog, the word quick spread to Facebook and Twitter., where the hashcode #amazonfail quickly became the top subject on Twitter.

I was watching as the events unfolded over the Sunday afternoon. I saw posts from other media workers, with no outlet for their work on the weekend, also posting on Facebook and Twitter. The Amazon glitch was and is a direct threat not only to authors of gay and lesbian subjects, it was a threat to all authors. So authors posted, cross posted, linked and sent out messages. So did the reading public, who saw those initial posts. Then came the online community at large on Twitter and Facebook.

The events of Sunday were not only the first time that Twitter became a viral phenomenon without parallel media coverage, it showed the power of crowd researching. People would go to Amazon and check their favourite books and authors and find out if the ranking was still there.
Hundreds of people doing targeted research all at once creates more information more quickly than a single reporter can.

That, unfortunately, is a lesson, for the mainstream media. When we weren't there, the public didn't need us. They cover the news themselves.

Return of the Jedi-Author

Here, dear reader, I am, without apology going to mix my metaphor, from Battlestar Galatica to Star Wars.

Authors are under threat from an Empire, publishing companies and chain bookstores, empires ruled by corporate Palpatines and Vaders.

Authors are like the lonely surviving Jedi holding out against the chain bookstore Death Stars and publishing company storm troopers that view authors as cannon fodder.

Amazon enters the picture.

A neutral Force. (yes a Force with cap “F') that might give power to the Jedi-author.
Is Amazon going to go to the Dark Side or Light Side of the Force?

That is the decision the Amazon corporate executives must face.

Every author (like me) today links to their books listed on Amazon. (In fact one of my frustrations is that due a rights Cluster Fark, people can't order A River Kwai Story from Australia on Amazon)
The long tail theory began when the sales of books were tracked on Amazon and those figures showed that a book could have a long and perhaps profitable life long after the three months that the chain bookstores carry a book.

Ask any author today and they will tell you that the publishing companies have no respect for them. At publishing companies, the corporate mail mobile (whether human or robotic) is more important than an author.

The majority of bookstores don't want authors around, in fact, they'll keep them at bay with a 10 metre pole (unless they're Stephen King or Neil Gaimon)

So I am hoping that the Force really is with the author. That Amazon will realize that they have completely farked their customer relations and they are still farking their customer relationships.

Hiring a PR firm that specializes in salvaging this kind of mess won't t help.

So here's what I think Amazon should do.

Will Amazon take advantage of a disaster and turn it into an opportunity?

Or will it turn to the Dark Side of the Force and become just another literary Death Star?

Jeff Bezos. You have choice. So, from metaphor No. 3, take advice from Spiderman. With great power comes great responsibility.


Amazon really doesn't get it. It apparently issued a new release on the afternoon of April 13. Yet nothing but corporate/SEC stuff on the Press Release page. It was the public on Facebook and Twitter that alerted the media to the problem, yet it seems Amazon is only speaking to the media who ask. The public still doesn't matter.

Ad Age: Amazon's Silent Mistake in the Face of a Social-Media Firestorm

All weekend, as the firestorm spread, Amazon maintained silence. Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, who's on Twitter, has yet to write a word about the brouhaha. Finally, today, Amazon's director of corporate communications, Patty Smith, blamed the issue on a "glitch," which was not explained.

Whether the incident is a glitch or the work of a hacker is rather beside the point. Amazon should have been monitoring its brand in social media 24/7. And clearly it wasn't. It should have responded much sooner and much more clearly. If it didn't know the cause, it should have said so and explained what it was doing to find out.

LA Times updates Amazon blames book-search glitch on 'cataloging error'

Herdener did not respond to requests to clarify the cause of the error, nor about why works such as the "Milk" pictorial -- which did not appear to be listed in any of the categories mentioned by Amazon -- may have been removed from the search listings...

In striking contrast to all of the online uproar, Amazon -- a leading Internet company and media pioneer -- remained nearly silent. It issued a brief statement Sunday evening, citing "a glitch," then waited most of Monday before issuing the mea culpa.

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Wednesday, March 11, 2009
  The pre-Twitter tweets from The Economist

It has been said so many times, "it came before its time."

More than a quarter century ago, the staid old Economist invented Tweeting. Of course, only a handful of people noticed (and I'm sure The Economist has forgotten all about it).

By the way, I have just joined Twitter and you can follow me (if you care) at rowlandr.

Back in 1981, I was working in London, at the Universal News Services PR wire and using Britain's fledgling Prestel videotex service. The Economist was also one of Prestel's clients.

In this early form of new media, you had a keyboard attached to a TV screen, which was wired through the phone system to a mainframe computer somewhere in an early version of cyberspace.

It was also expensive. You were not only paying for the phone line (at per minute rates) but in most cases (unless Prestel waived the charges) a per page fee as well. (So it never really got anywhere, a warning to those revisionist columnists who think the media should have started charging for access in the early days of the web).

The best way to get the news across was in short briefs. Not everyone did that, but The Economist did. If you wanted to print out a page, it came out on silvered, heat sensitive paper, with the type appearing only slightly darker silver. Hard to read, old chap.

And why do I remember all this? One story in the summer of 1981, reminded me of my home in "the colonies." It went something like this

There's good news and bad news from Canada. The good news is that the television network is on strike. The bad news is that the post office is on strike.
(I make that 130 characters)

Ha ha ha. Yes there was a strike at the CBC at that time, And yes Canada Post was going through his infamous period of labour unrest.

The other stories were just like that. They were "tweets."

If they only knew what they started.........

Of course, The Economist is back at it. Twitter name The Economist and as of this moment there are 10,195 followers.

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I write in a renovated garret in my house in a part of Toronto, Canada, called "The Pocket." The blog is named for a tree can be seen outside the window of my garret.

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Name: Robin Rowland
Location: Toronto, Canada

I'm a Toronto-based writer, photographer, web producer, television producer, journalist and teacher. I'm author of five books, the latest A River Kwai Story: The Sonkrai Tribunal. The Garret tree is my blog on the writing life including my progress on my next book (which will be announced here some time in the coming months) My second blog, the Wampo, Nieke and Sonkrai follows the slow progress of my freelanced model railway based on my research on the Burma Thailand Railway (which is why it isn't updated that often) The Creative Guide to Research, based on my book published in 2000 is basically an archive of news, information and hints for both the online and the shoe-leather" researcher. (Google has taken over everything but there are still good hints there)

New blogs as of Sept. 2009
Robin's Weir
Tao of News

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